Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Jean Naccarelli was pretty too. And she really was dying.

There's a quirky little tale that's hidden inside 50 years worth of local stories in Pittsburgh-area newspapers.  It's about two women with the same last name, born in the same neighbourhood around the same time. At different times in their lives, they would both have flattering stories and embarrassing ones printed about them. But the story that gathered the most headlines would involve them both. 

There were two Miss Lennons born in Beechview, Pennsylvania in or around 1915. One was Jean, born possibly as early as 1913. And one was Marguerite, born in 1915.

They would go on to lead very different lives, and there is little indication that they had ever met or known of each other until Jean, at the age of 46, claimed to a reporter that she had won the title of Miss Pittsburgh in 1932.

That title had actually belonged to Marguerite.

Jean's Life

The press had a distaste for Jean after they discovered this lie and took none of her other claims seriously: for instance her claim that she had cancer with only a few months to live, or her claim that her 16 year-old estranged daughter was an accomplished medical professional, or that her uncle "John" had been the brains behind the Queen Mary and had left her an estate worth millions of dollars. And they had good reason; all of these claims were demonstrably false.

But Jean Naccarelli, formerly Jean Francis, formerly Jean Lennon of Beechview, Pennsylvania really was an interesting person, and a good woman. And damn it, I think she was rather fetching.

We can first spot Jean in the June 17, 1937 edition of The Pittsburgh Press when she was Jean Francis. She had gotten herself tangled up in a bigamy case on account of another woman's unsettled marriage to her husband Roy.  Ruth Francis, Roy's first wife, was trying to get a divorce but the court was slow to grant it. So Jean came to the rescue to testify for her so that she might be granted the divorce. All the while, Jean loyally stood by Roy, saying: "We've been through a lot together."

Jean and Roy would have two daughters, Noreen and Jean, before they split up and the girls left with their father. At this point, Jean would marry Italian immigrant Felice Naccarelli. Now things start getting a little strange.

In late July of 1957, Jean saw a police car crash and burst into flames. What is unquestioned and verified by the officers involved is that Jean Naccarelli dragged the two unconscious policemen out of the car, returned to the car to cut the ignition and control the fire, and then gave first aid to the officers while waiting for an ambulance. For the next month, she was a hero. She even received an award from the mayor of Pittsburgh.

But months after the attention died down, more stories trickled in about Jean Naccarelli. And each of seemed more desperate than the last. In the June 19, 1958 edition of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jean was again lauded for her heroism after announcing that she faced eminent death. According to Jean, a doctor had told her she only had three months to live, and the press came out to do a short piece on her.

Jean Naccarelli apparently had a deep desire for attention. Her daughter Noreen and husband Felice would tell the press that Jean had a habit of sending herself telegrams and flowers addressed from other people, and Jean twice claimed of having cancer with only three months to live, in separate press reports that spanned over three months.

In August, 1958, the AP reported that Jean had been rescued from her burning home by a heroic young soldier who carried her out of bed. Oddly, the soldier was able to go back inside for her pets, and the fire department estimated damages at under $4,000. It was lost on no one that Pittsburgh's famed rescuer had now been rescued herself. And Jean was again in the papers, garnering sympathy for her troubles and admiration for her past heroism.

Then, in late August of 1959 came the most remarkable story to date. Jean told reporters that she had a Scottish uncle who had left her millions of dollars, but that she wouldn't be able to enjoy it because she had cancer and only twelve months to live. She also indulged reporters with a handful of comments about her family and personal history, including that she had won the title of Miss Pittsburgh in 1932. Her odd remarks to reporters during this time made pretty much everyone suspicious, and by September 3rd, the truth was out about the cancer, the uncle, the beauty pageant, the telegrams; as far as the press was concerned, Jean Naccarelli was an attention-craving mad woman. After this, there's no trace of Jean Naccarelli in the papers, with the exception of a late 1959 story in which Felice had to borrow a few bucks for bail after getting arrested for a fight, and the angle was: "Har har, isn't it funny that the 'millionaire' had to borrow money?"

But the thing is: Jean Naccarelli really was dying. (She had an uncle John, too; he just wasn't rich.) And by all accounts, she really did rescue those cops. Apparently, the whole time she was giving those stories to the press about having only a short time to live, she really was wasting away. It just took her a little longer to die than she thought, and instead of cancer, her death was likely due to a painful liver ailment that had been brushed over by reporters in the September 1959 stories. She was buried in Pittsburgh's Homewood Cemetery in 1965. She was between 50 and 52 years old.

Marguerite's Life

The life of Marguerite Puskar, formerly Marguerite Lennon is fairly well-documented. She enjoyed some minor fame in 1932 upon being crowned Miss Pittsburgh and Miss Pennsylvania, and once every decade or so after that, someone would run a story about how gracefully the 'pretty thing that stole our hearts back when' has been ageing.

Every story written on her describes her as beautiful, and even the hospital picture of her fresh out of labor in the June 1, 1941, Pittsburgh Press is quite striking. As her family had fallen on rough times during the Depression, she used her beauty to fetch some extra money. In her late teens, Marguerite was spotted in a department store trying on hats and was asked if she wanted to model for the local stores. Some time into her modelling stint, she arrived home one day to find her father holding an ad for a local beauty pageant. He decided that she should enter it for the prize money. She won that one, and several more, giving all of her winnings to her family.

She would later marry a Postmaster and after some time become a Postmaster herself. In 1979, she retired from the Post Office, and in 1985, she passed with her loving family by her side. She died of cancer.

Something in Common

It's unclear what Jean knew of Marguerite. She at least must have known that she shared a last name with the local beauty queen. And there is no evidence that Marguerite had heard of Jean. The only documented connection between the two Lennon girls from Beechview, Pennsylvania was Jean's lie to reporters about the Miss Pittsburgh pageant. But Marguerite had what Jean wanted: attention from the community and a family that loved her.

The July 7, 1963 Pittsburgh Press, printed four years after Jean's breakdown and two short years before her death, shows a happy Marguerite surrounded by her family. When the beauty pageants are mentioned, the enthused children point to several broken, dusted trophy cups in old boxes--the coveted evidences of a loving public and a life well lived.
On a lighter note, it would not appear that Jean was the only Lennon girl to ever be a bit dishonest to the press. A barely legible New Castle News story from December 12, 1931 describes a very pretty blonde girl named Marguerite Lennon from Beechview, Pennsylvania who had offered herself up for marriage to any white, American man who would give her family $10,000. She received so many phone calls begging her not to go through with it that she withdrew the offer. The two stories from that time mark her as being 18, a legally and socially appropriate age for the transaction. But our Marguerite Lennon of Beechview, who notedly entered pageants the same year to make money for her family, would have only been 16 at the time.

1 comment:

  1. Hey. I found your article when looking for my grandmother. My grandmother is fhd Marguerite that WAS Miss Pgh. Your story is interesting but some of your facts are incorrect. I couldoint you to the correct documents if youd like to correct it. For example the real Lennon family is from the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. My grandmother's father had a store in Beechview and address there but not until she was a teen.